A security guard wears mask as he stands in front of a closed shopping mall during the government-imposed lockdown amid the Covid-19 epidemic in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on May 4, 2020. Photo: Syed Mahamudur Rahman / NurPhoto

The op-ed “Bangladesh and Covid-19: Disaster within a disaster” mischaracterizes Bangladesh’s response to Covid-19 and is mistaken about Bangladesh’s past elections.

Bangladesh is not suppressing the media during the pandemic. Its 1,277 daily newspapers, including 258 that appear nationally, and over 30 privately owned television networks are free to report what they wish about Covid-19, including criticisms of the government.

The government also makes its virus-related actions public here. Journalists are not being silenced. In the few instances that Bangladesh authorities have arrested individuals over Covid-19 statements, the reason has related to libel, slander and the spreading of false information that inflicted harm on the public.

As for previous elections, independent observers from across the globe, including India and the Islamic Organization for Cooperation, have said the current government’s wins in 2009, 2014 and 2018 were fair and free. Only the opposition party sees it differently for obvious reasons.

Furthermore, the government’s mandate has been strengthened by recent polling that demonstrates strong approval. The government’s approval rating last year was 83%. Seventy-six percent of those polled said they believed the country was headed in the right direction.

Sabria Chowdhury Balland, author of the op-ed, responds:

Ambassador Ziauddin characterizes well-documented facts as “mischaracterizations.” This has become the standardized code word from Bangladesh’s current authoritarian regime to battle truths that expose it for what it really is. 

Ambassador Ziauddin states that the regime does not suppress the media. On April 29, an article appeared on The Diplomat reporting, among other points, that “The crackdown on dissent during the crisis is part of a larger pattern from the Awami League government.”

There has been an international campaign by Amnesty International and CPJ Asia, among others, for the release of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who was arrested and held without trial after reporting a government scandal.

The examples cited above are a mere drop in the ocean, having only arisen during the Covid-19 lockdown. Crackdowns on journalists and free speech are the rule rather than the exception, under the guise of “mischaracterization,” “misunderstanding” and “protection of the public.”

With regards to the foreign observers during the 2018 election mentioned by Ambassador Ziauddin, the US observers were not given visas to Bangladesh and the individuals who did go as observers were later found not to be internationally recognized.

Claimed approval ratings of the Awami League are never reflected among Bangladeshis one can actually talk to, regardless of the numbers plucked out of thin air. 

Last, the hard-working taxpayers of Bangladesh would surely love to know that their diplomats and politicians are working for them and not scrutinizing the rights of others to express their well-documented factual analyses. 

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the US and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People under State Terrorism. A former elected member of the US Democratic Party Abroad, she is currently a board member of The Right to Freedom, a Washington-based non-profit organization working toward peace and democracy in Bangladesh.

Mohammad Ziauddin is Bangladesh ambassador to the United States of America and concurrently accredited to Argentina, Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guyana and Venezuela. He is also the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the Organization of American States. Prior to his appointment as ambassador to the US, he was ambassador-at-large of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with the rank and status of state minister.